The Unknown Terrorist

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The Unknown Terrorist, by Richard Flanagan. Published by Picador, 2006. ISBN 0 330 42277 4 (hb)$45; 0 330 42280 (pb) $32.95.

The author of The Sound of One Hand Clapping and Gould’s Book of Fish has come up with a veritable novel "for our times". So much so that real recent events, that are more current affairs than history, have walk-on roles or close contextual significance. Here is a gripping tale of Australia (well, Sydney at least) in the midst of a terror campaign.

The hunt is on for those responsible for planting three unexploded bombs around the harbour city. Gina Davies, alias the "Doll", is an erotic pole-dancer who spends the night with a client (Tariq) of Middle Eastern origin and prime suspect, and is then caught with him on CCTV footage at his apartment entrance. From here onwards, she is at the centre of a police and media hunt, in which the true fragments known about her are threaded into a story that suits the needs of a society under threat.

Flanagan succeeds in creating an atmosphere of fear, together with the sadly almost inevitable reactions of societies under threat from terrorism. The paranoia and prejudice, the need of governments and their police forces for rapid results, and the role of the media in fuelling these and applying pressure to get them, are all vividly shown here in both character and plot. The Doll has shady underworld, media and police connections, and these all play a part in constructing her nightmare and its final and inescapably tragic end.

Anyone who has lived in places that experience a random terror campaign will know that it is very hard to maintain the decency, humanity and justice system of any country in these conditions. Those who lived through the mainland IRA bombing campaign in the UK of the '70s and '80s will be forever embarrassed to find that the main convictions, that made them feel a bit safer at the time, were later to be known as those disgraceful miscarriages of British justice, the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.

One of the main characters (Richard Coady) is a television journalist who makes a documentary about the Doll, and it provides a scary narrative of just how easy it is to add two and two to make five. That the unscrupulous journalist also becomes a victim is both poetic and ironic. There is a passage of Joycean litany against the way the media swings into unison when a story develops in a certain way, particularly the trail of a hunt.

At times in the book, there seems to be a real rivalry between terrorism and the media as the greatest villain of the piece. In fact, such is the rottenness of Sydney’s underbelly, as portrayed by Flanagan, that rather like the devil having the best tunes in Paradise Lost, the hunted seem more virtuous than the hunters, although nobody comes out of this tale well.

In fact the author is so effective at bringing alive the sleaze, violence and misery of the Doll’s world that it is hard not to be dejected and disgusted. This is not an uplifting tale. The problem is that Flanagan’s Sydney is almost not worth saving either. Life on the margins of this society, and the final scenes of callous death and indifference, paint a bleak picture of what is being protected from terrorism.

The book is a broad polemic by a radical Tasmanian writer, who has been active and forthright in pointing out some of the major problems in Tasmania and nationally. The book has a dedication to David Hicks. Its introduction is a short philosophical essay, in which it is stated that love is not enough, and love alone cannot triumph. He compares and contrasts Christ and Nietzsche who both sacrifice themselves, like suicide bombers, for love (of his fellow men for Jesus, and a horse for Nietzsche), although they have opposing views about what drives the world.

Reality, he writes, is not made by realists but by dreamers like Jesus and Nietzsche. Christians may find this portrayal and comparison uncomfortable. The Nietzschean view of the world being propelled along by evil seems to have won the day in this novel, but the obvious evil of random terror is given not so much a causus belli as an unexpectedly weakened and discredited opposition, that unravels further as it finds that the enemy is within. Bit by bit, the society damages all that it holds dear, and endangers whatever moral high ground it had in the first place. Maybe the first target of the book is that moral high ground, for which little justification can be found in this portrayal of contemporary Australia.

This work should make a good film, with Chopin’s Nocturne No 7 prominent in the soundtrack, as this piece is the leitmotiv of the book. The nocturnes are usually seen as having sublime dream-like qualities that are somehow at odds with the mood of this book, but their imagery of endings and sleep, together with the underlying melancholy may explain the author’s choice of theme tune: an anthem for a decaying and possibly dying society. At one stage a vagrant is being cruelly beaten by thugs in a Sydney street, in a place, he writes, "that had once been a community, in a country that had once been a society".



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This is a sensitive and perceptive review of a brilliant novel that I just read recently. Richard Flanagan's book was recently reviewed in the influential New York Review of Books. Having been published by Picador, it is readily accessible to overseas readers as well as here. I cannot think of a novel that better portrays the darkness of our times. Though recognisably set in a very real Sydney, its themes are universal and rooted in reality. Think of Menendes in London, Haneef in Brisbane. It is all too easy for innocent unlucky people to be swept up in a paranoid public climate, if the social checks and balances have been corrupted. Flanagan's book is a fable of what can happen then; a warning of what happens if good people do not fight back against injustice and scapegoating of the weak. The awful thing is that it shows how the scales are so loaded against those who do try to fight back, that many just give up (and, in the book, go sailing).
tony kevin | 05 November 2007


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